In the time of the virus, are you still entitled to a full ...

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In the time of the virus, are you still entitled to a full refund?

It may not be fair for either consumer or supplier to take the full knock, but this is what is still reasonable

Consumer journalist
Image: Balint Roxana/123RF

It was World Consumer Rights Day last Sunday, March 15, and this year’s theme was “The Sustainable Consumer” – “highlighting the lifestyle changes consumers can make to play their part”.

UK-based organisation Consumers International clearly came up with that theme many months ago, but by the time the big day came, the world was a very different place, and most consumers were more consumed by how they were going to sustain their health and their livelihoods during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic than reducing their environmental footprint.

People who a fortnight ago were fervently crusading about the scourge of plastic are now obsessed with getting their well-washed hands on plastic bottles of hand sanitiser or plastic atomisers in which to put their homemade sanitiser.

Cape Town-based motoring journalist Ciro De Siena summed it up with this tweet on Friday morning: “Left a bottle of hand sanitiser in my car. Very silly; someone will break my window for that shit.”

While the Consumer Protection Act legally entitles us to full refunds when events are cancelled for reasons beyond anyone’s control, it’s not fair to expect either party – consumer or supplier – to take the full knock.

How our priorities have changed.

For more than two decades I’ve stood up for consumers, fought for their legal right to refunds and fair treatment, but never in the context of a pandemic we can’t blame anyone for.

(Well, Trump is stoking rampant anti-Chinese sentiment by insisting on calling it the “Chinese virus”, but that’s another story.)

These are extraordinary circumstances, and while the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) legally entitles us to full refunds when events are cancelled for reasons beyond anyone’s control, it’s not fair to expect either party – consumer or supplier – to take the full knock.

In a bid to clear up what she called “widespread confusion about the rights and responsibilities of affected parties in relation to claims for refunds”, Consumer Goods and Services ombud Magauta Mphahlele has issued a press release saying the CPA gives consumers the right to a full refund in these circumstances. “But if a postponement is possible, we urge consumers to take this option, rather than request a refund, to minimise the impact on suppliers, who are also not at fault,” she said.

The pandemic has prompted Mphahlele to come up with a novel interpretation of the section of the CPA stating that consumers may not be penalised for a cancellation that is due to illness or death.

“While many individual consumers have not been tested for the Covid-19 virus,” she said, “the restrictions imposed by the president and the health department is treating everyone as being ‘ill’, hence the restrictions.

“As a result, it is the interpretation of the CGSO, based on the intention of that section of the CPA, that consumers are entitled to full refunds when they cancel due to the travel bans and restrictions on gatherings.”

Still she said: “I encourage all parties to act reasonably and fairly as well as work together to minimise the impact on the economy, individuals and households.

“We also hope that our government will consider some relief measures for suppliers to stem potential job losses and the collapse of the economy.”

Low-cost airlines are taking the biggest hit. Despite the CPA, they’ve never issued full refunds for ticket cancellations, except in cases of hospitalisation and death.

Now, as a pandemic response, they are either waiving their usual fee to change a booking date, or issuing credit vouchers instead of refunds. In FlySafair’s case, the credit comes at a cost of R300 per ticket.

One woman wrote to tell me she considered those two options to be “a smack in the face”. “I have written to FlySafair to let them know how unfair their policy is ... I feel as if they are benefiting from a crisis situation.”

FlySafair’s response speaks to the enormity of the “smack” that the industry is currently taking.

“We’d love nothing more than to give all our customers full, instant cash refunds,” he said, “but we have a business to preserve. This pandemic is having a brutal effect on the global economy and on the aviation industry in particular.

“We feel that we’re in a good position to weather this storm and to preserve the 1,140 jobs that we’ve created the in past five years, but we have to make sensible decisions. We’ve bent our rules to accommodate our customers, and we are budgeting a big blow as a result, but we need to make sure that the blow is not a death blow – no bailouts for us.”

Give and take. Fair enough.

But many service providers, alas, are being unbelievably inflexible, not to mention defiant of the law.

Most music and sporting events have postponed their events, but the Two Oceans marathon is simply cancelled, with no entry fees refunded.

A Port Edward holiday resort owner told a party of 13 people – three families – when they cancelled their Easter weekend booking: “No postponement, and no refund of your R6,600.”

His pool and the beach are legally out of bounds, and we’ve all been told to self-isolate as much as possible.

A Joburg boutique hotel has cancelled two women’s small baby showers, having been paid in full for them, including catering, and is refusing to refund them a cent, insisting they postpone instead. A baby shower at a hotel with a small baby in tow?

And a safari group is keeping the entire R168,000 an Australian family paid for a Kruger safari later this month, despite the fact the travel ban is making their trip impossible.

The group’s best offer is a rebooking within 12 months, which does not suit the family.

In contrast, Quantas, Airbnb and another local accommodation venue have refunded them in full.

This pandemic will pass, but the memory of how companies responded will not.

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